At a time when our country talked about equal opportunity but continued to deny equal rights for so many Americans, Martin Luther King Jr. used non-violence and peaceful protests to help change a country. He trained like-minded Americans to walk in civil protests while avoiding attacking those who opposed their civil rights mission.
King wrote: "Compassion and nonviolence help us to see the enemy's point of view, to hear their questions, to know their assessment of ourselves. For from their point of view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers and sisters who are called the opposition."
Having courageous civil demonstrations was not his goal; he wanted to change America. King knew that threatening, violent demonstrations do more to fuel hatred and empower the opponents’ resolve than invite needed transformation.
Violence was a moral boundary King refused any of his people to breach. He warned in 1958, "Hate begets hate; violence begets violence; toughness begets a greater toughness. We must meet the forces of hate with the power of love." King sold them on civility and trained them in non-violence. His compassionate stand for America to live up to its stated ideals of freedom and equal rights for all made him hard to hate.
Today, people on both sides of our political divide are concerned, even depressed, by the violence and polarized comments that are leaving our country as divided as it has been in decades. Unfortunately, the media makes money by giving voice to the extremes, and we have no one on the national scene that matches King’s stature or wisdom. But each of us can work for a change in civility starting with ourselves.
In recent months, members from three local California churches came together for a three-week series titled, Make America Civil Again(www.MakeAmericaCivilAgain.com
The following civility conversation ground rules proved to be most helpful no matter what issue was discussed:
Don’t assume bad intent. Show empathy and tolerance for differences. Good people disagree. Well-intentioned patriots exist on both sides of any divide.
Stay Calm. When angry count to ten…very angry to a hundred. It’s better to end a conversation and take time to cool down than to let escalating anger destroy a valued relationship.
Seek first to understand, then to be understood. Ask good questions and then really listen. Say “Tell me more about…” and “Let me see if I understand…”
Make your argument without assuming you’re right or that the other should know why. Affirm points of agreement and common ground early while working to bring clarity to your position.
Do your homework and build depth to your convictions and your understanding of opposing views.
Talk show host and columnist Dennis Prager has asserted that the American trinity can be found on every coin and dollar bill—In God We Trust, Liberty, and E Pluribus Unum (out of many one). America was built on God-given rights that no king or party could take away, liberty that makes the freedom of every American as important as your own, and a unity that transforms our diversity into a rich woven cord of national strength.
Martin Luther King, Jr. used non-violent demonstrations to call citizens to those values in a time of transformation. In 1963, King spoke to the power of the people when he said, "We did not hesitate to call our movement an army. But it was a special army, with no supplies but its sincerity, no uniform but its determination, no arsenal except its faith, no currency but its conscience."
It’s time we collectively affirm and live out those same values once again. Choose civility and non-violence. Make a difference for civility one conversation at a time.